Combination Wildlife Cover and Forage fields—part I

What is the most critical habitat feature to have in order to see deer in your deer hunting spot consistently? Many would say, “Really lush, attractant food plots”. Not a bad answer and for sure, a well planned and maintained kill plot works and sometimes beyond believe. Yet if the bucks bed two miles away from your spot due to little or no buck bedding cover, near you, your chances of seeing big ‘George’ are little to none during legal hunting hours. He may be visiting your lush soybean bow plot in early October or your sugar beet firearm plot, but only after dark. The key is to have those bucks bed near your hunting area during daylight. The older the buck the later he leaves his bed for his evening activities and the sooner he heads back in the AM. In fact he will likely head back before daylight. If his bed was made by you, and you know he is using it, the odds are now in your favor. Don’t be surprised to see him take a bite of your lush food plot just as daylight takes hold then heads for his bed 100 yards away. By having that buck bed where you want him too, you have controlled his movements during daylight. If you already have some dense habitat but don’t have the knowledge of manipulating it to encourage deer to bed where you want them too, contact the one and only true expert in this field, Tony LaPratt at www.tonysulm.com. Tony’s expertise can be complimented by your own efforts by creating, ‘Combination wildlife cover and forage fields’.

This is the first article of a series that will cover in detail the value of cover for all wildlife and particularly deer. We will cover natural old fields and what they contribute to the well being of wildlife. You will have the options of several methods of field preparation, planting methods, planting dates, maintenance of wildlife cover and recommended combination cover and forage seed blends. We advise the inclusion of perennials for lower field structure and forage, which includes certain long living and aggressive legumes as part of the seed blend. Finally you will be introduced to the primary reasons deer, (in numbers); game birds, rabbits and ground nesting songbirds choose these fields as their haven of safety. We are talking native warm season grasses; NWSG’s and these articles will dwell on the features of NWSG’s.

Tall long-standing cover is the key

NWSG’s come in many varieties and forms from short but bushy ‘2-3 feet tall Little blue stem, to 8-9 feet tall Big blue stem. There are eight primary NWSG’s that are generally identified as ideal cover for wildlife. As mentioned we have little and Big blue stem, which are very drought tolerant as are all other NWSG’s and useful as cover. You do need structure within your wildlife cover fields. This structure means low growing plants of 1-3 feet height such as little blue stem or sideoats grama as cover for birds and smaller mammals, bedded deer and support for the taller grasses. You should have medium height grasses as cover for the fawning does. Here, we can use Broom sedge bluestem, Canada wild rye or the shorter growing variety of Switch grass. with a height of 2-5 feet. For the key ingredient we can use the taller growing and very aggressive Switch grass, Indian grass, big blue stem or Eastern gramagrass, which can reach heights of 7-9 feet. Yes, tall long-standing cover is the key, yet you do yourself and the wildlife a big favor by including lower and intermediate height growing plants. In the recommended seed blend that will be mentioned in part II, we do not include any low growing NWSG’s. As mentioned above, we advise several aggressive long living and wildlife preferred legume perennials as low structure. These perennials also serves as forage for much wildlife and certainly deer, with the emphasis on forage during the fawning period for both the doe and her fawns. Within two-three weeks after birth the fawns begin to experiment to munch on the same forage as Mom. Go into one of your fields of a wildlife and cover blend in the latter part of June and look for a deer bed. You will know which end of the bed contained the deer’s head, for there will be eaten forage of your seeded perennials as far as the deer can stretch their head while bedded. Many varieties of NWSG’s are ideal forage for livestock but not deer. They wont touch a leaf, while cattle have a picnic. In general deer will not eat grass except at spring green-up and new growth that appears in late summer and fall. Even then if other more palatably and preferred forage is available, grass is not a main item on their menu.

Cool season grasses versus warm season grasses

We have literally destroyed much of the existing NWSG’s that was present prior to settlement times. Emigrants flocked to our shores to take advantage of the open and fertile prairie, ‘Sod busters’ I believe they were called. NWSG’s were replaced with cash crops and cool season grasses used for pasture and hay. The cool season grasses most of us are familiar with are tall fescue, Brome grass, Orchard grass and Timothy. There are others such as the much unwelcome Johnson grass, Crab grass and Quack grass. Most are introduced non native varieties and not really welcome in your, ‘Combination cover and forage fields’. Except for Timothy NWSG’s cannot compete with these non-native cool season grasses. Cool season grasses in the right growing conditions will take charge and snuff out NWSG’s in time. Except for Timothy cool season grasses grow in a thick mat and creates a thatch of dead and growing vegetation that makes it difficult for game birds and small mammals to move about. Birds need insects from late spring through fall. Newly hatched pheasant and other game bird chicks depend on the easy availability of insects for their survival. Thick cool season grass makes it difficult for chicks to not only see their prey but to move about. This is a major factor in the hen’s choice of nesting location and chick survival. We cannot overemphasize the value of having perennial forages, (think clover and alfalfa) in the blend. Game birds will gorge themselves with clover before the onset of the arrival of insects. You will find few insects without legumes such as clover and alfalfa in your fields. If you want a successful chick hatching and survival to adulthood, think legumes. Shoot a turkey in mid April and you will find clover galore in its gizzard if it grows nearby. Shoot a turkey in mid May and you will find insects galore in its gizzard. NWSG’s planted alone is a dessert for wildlife, but in combination with legume perennials and forbs it becomes an oasis. Birds are not the only wildlife that prefers living quarters other than cool season grasses. Small mammals from rabbits to chipmunks prefer native forbs and legumes to be included in their home site, with diversity of food being paramount. They also need to be able to move about freely. This story continues to the needs and desires of deer. I believe if our cool creatures could sing we would hear the refrain, “Give me room, lots of room underneath the starry skies, don’t fence me in”. We may have a lot in common with our outdoor friends. Well, lets give them room, lots of room to roam about and that is by replanting our past heritage. Most NWSG’s grow in clumps. By seeding a small amount, 1-1/2 to 2-1/2 lbs, of selected NWSG’s along with other well rationed perennials at 3-1/2 to 4-1/2 lbs; per acre we just may create the answer to it all. By preparing that field for maximum weed and weed seed control prior to seeding your, Wildlife cover and forage blend and at no more than six lbs per acre you well leave much space for the native forbs, (old field) to also establish in time. Diversity is what you want and diversity is what you and your wildlife will get. We will make a strong effort to rid our fields of cool season grasses in spite of advice from well meaning friends. There is one exception and that is Timothy, which also grows in clumps and allows movement about. Timothy being a cool season grass starts growing earlier than NWSG’s and is there at the right time and height, (3-4 feet) for the first of June doe fawning and game bird chick hatching time. We recommend to plant a minimum amount of Timothy as part of your grass input in your, Wildlife cover and forage blend.

What is and why have an old field

Above we mentioned having native forbs included in your Combination wildlife cover and forage fields. When an old open field is disturbed with fire, spraying, tillage or all of these practices the existing grasses and weeds such as bracken fern are set back, with the normal first new growth consisting primarily of forbs. These new plants consist of many weeds such as poison ivy, golden rod, ragweed, wild chicory, wild strawberry, white dutch clover and red clover. Example, take your mower and make a swath in an old grass field and mow several times. Note in late summer the appearance of both white and red clover, plantain, dandelion, wild strawberries and other forbs. Where did they come from and why is it so thick? The seeds were always there in the soil seed bank and perhaps for decades. You just eliminated the shading canopy of cool season grasses and allowed these forbs to finally grow. So too should these forbs appear in your wildlife cover and forage field if seeded in a conservative rate. These forbs in the main are in deer’s favorite food category.

Why NWSG’s for deer?

You may get an argument from those who hunt or own land in a monoculture of forest that consists of primarily conifers on whether cover is the critical habitat ingredient. You may hear, “All I have is cover with all those spruce dominating the forest and another thing the whole forest is a deer bedding area. Why should I create a separate deer bedding area? It’s food plots that I need’. I will admit, a well planned food plot program, in thick forest areas of little to no agriculture can make a heap of an improvement in your hunting experience. Still, knowing that a buck or two is bedding in an area you manipulated to encourage deer of both sexes to loaf and bed can also make a heap of improvement in your hunting experiences. Remember, if you know what is bedding in an area of your creation and you know they are bedding there during daylight and perhaps fairly close to your hunting spot, you have just gained control of their movement. This is an awesome thing in your favor, food plots or no food plots. NWSG’s will grow throughout the Midwest and even the far north woods. Deer not only prefer heavy cover they love it and the taller the better. In fact you cannot make their cover too tall.  

Plan, plan

The above uses of a, Combination wildlife cover and forage field, illustrates the need to make a plan with much thought going into it. Take your time and think about where you want the deer to move, how many food plots and locations of them, bedding areas, sanctuaries, water sources, travel lanes, budget, soil preparation, planting methods and planting dates. We will cover in detail some of your options in part III.

A little history

We have planted over 100 acres of this wildlife cover and forage seed blend in the last two years. We are more than satisfied with the present results even though it takes up to 6 years to evaluate accurately the outcome. We started experimenting and planting this concept of combining cover and forage for wildlife in 1996 when we put 400 acres into a CRP program. Our responsibility was preventing erosion and that meant planting cover. I liked that responsibility and proceeded to plant 400 acres in a variety of ways with wildlife in mind. NWSG’s were part of the plan and planted with various seeding methods, rates and blends with the object of finding an answer to an acceptable cover and forage field that would satisfy the needs of much wildlife. The early years were more frustration than success. We did get satisfactory results planting NWSG’s with birdsfoot trefoil but little with clover and NWSG blends. Except for a few experiments, there was not a desirable length of clover life of four or more years. We did learn a lot of what not to do and some seedings showed promise. Today we have a very aggressive clover, (Kura from Russia) that lives forever, has a digestibility rate of an unbelievable 83 % and most important, deer love it. We also have an alfalfa, (from Siberia called Falcata or yellow blossom alfalfa) that also lives forever, cold tolerant, very aggressive and is the right variety, and that is, a grazing type of alfalfa. We also learned that if the Wildlife cover and forage blend planting loses its desired content of certain perennials or NWSG’s it can be rejuvenated to keep on ticking as long as we want it to. This ability to overseed successfully desired plants in an established, (this is not likely if seeded correctly) but failing cover and forage field alone gives us ample reason to seed without apprehension.

Rejuvenation of your wildlife cover and forage fields

Note; we have several trial wildlife cover and forage field rejuvenation efforts in place presently and plan more. It may take two years to evaluate accurately the better methods of field rejuvenation. We like what we see so far and will publish the final clear picture for you on this web site and hopefully within two years.

Example of a very highly recommended seeding method

We emphasize the need to do it right when planting this blend. The following method is ‘very highly recommended’ and we believe your best chance for success. You will first spray around September 15th the following formula, which will be used two more times, (next spring and early summer planting date). Spray two quarts of Round up. One quart of granulated sprayable ammonium sulfate, 1 1/2 pints of 2-4-D ester and two ounces of LI-700 per acre.

Your target planting date is the following year, near the end of June. The following year after the first September 15th spraying, around May 15th, (wait for the tallest weeds and grass to be 8-9 inches tall) spray for the second time the above formula. One week to ten days later broadcast the soil test recommended lime to achieve a Ph of 6.0 minimum and, 100 lbs of 19-19-19 fertilizer per acre and till no more than four inches deep. Do not till wet soil. Drop a lump of soil on your shoe. If it breaks go ahead and till. If it stays as a lump wait for the right shoe action. Four weeks later, (after tillage) and no less than four weeks spray again the same formula the newly emerged weeds, minus the 2-4-d ester. Then (the same day if no rain or soon after) broadcast, no-till drill, (preferred) or standard drill six lbs of, ‘Wildlife cover and forage blend’ per acre. Follow with a slow double cultipaking pass. If seeding with a no-till drill or standard drill and it doesn’t have an extra low gear setting, set the small seed flute opening at 7/16”, which is needed due to the included somewhat fluffy Canada wild rye seed. You will need to block every other seed opening with duct tape. You should be seeding at six lbs per acre rate. Your seeding date should be from the third week of June, (preferred) through the first week of July.

Note; all early summer seedings work best following a decent rain.

Note; It takes three years for the key seeds in this blend to mature. You can experience first year action with the following practice. Mix 8 lbs of buckwheat with 8 lbs of forage sorghum sudan BMR per acre and broadcast or run through the drill using the back large grain seed hopper set at a minimum flute opening, (around 3/16”).  After this you should be excited for things will happen and they are all good.

Keep the fun in hunting!

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Ed Spinazzola
Chairman of the Board, Mid Michigan Branch QDMA
Board of Directors, National QDMA

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